Exhibit explores Paul Simon’s life, music

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend
Carol Sorgen

Singer-songwriter Paul Simon, shown here in an old photo, has been performing for more than 50 years. A traveling exhibit from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that traces his work from his days with Art Garfunkel to the present is on display at the Jewish Museum of Maryland until Jan. 18.
Photo courtesy of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

 If you’re a Paul Simon fan (and honestly, who isn’t?) you’re in for a treat at the Jewish Museum of Maryland (JMM). It’s the first stop on a nationwide tour of “Paul Simon: Words and Music” — an exhibition first mounted at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland in October 2014 to mark the 50th year of Simon’s career. The exhibit will be on view in Baltimore through Jan. 18.

Simon — who celebrated his 74th birthday in October — is a two-time inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame, a winner of 12 Grammy Awards (three of which were albums of the year), and a 2003 recipient of the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award for his work as half of the duo Simon and Garfunkel.

His song, “Mrs. Robinson,” from the motion picture The Graduate, was named in the top 10 of the American Film Institute’s “100 Years...100 Songs.”

He was a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors in 2002, and was named one of Time magazine’s “100 People Who Shape Our World” in 2006. In 2007, Simon was awarded the first annual Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song.

“Whether you grew up in the era of Kate Smith or of Justin Timberlake, two singers Simon has appeared with at either end of his career, you’re bound to know his music,” said JMM director Marvin Pinkert, who had not yet seen the exhibit in person when he “jumped at the opportunity” to bring it to Baltimore.

“We had an opening in our schedule, and we were at the right place at the right time,” said Pinkert, adding that the show is a “great fit” for the museum and for the residents of Baltimore.

Tapping into his influence

The exhibit’s opening weekend numbers in October seem to bear out Pinkert’s optimism. Approximately 400 people attended the three opening events — about half of last year’s total October attendance.

“People really connect to Paul Simon,” said Pinkert. “Whether as part of Simon and Garfunkel or as a solo performer, he has been an important part of many people’s lives.”

An exhibit focusing on the singer/songwriter who, though Jewish is not particularly observant, might seem out of place in a Jewish museum. But Pinkert disagrees.

“Every Jewish museum is different,” he said. “In Baltimore, we focus on community, and how different individuals and institutions — from the recent exhibit on Mendes Cohen, a Jewish American soldier who helped defend Fort McHenry, to the impact of department  stores such as Hutzler’s — have contributed to both Maryland and the nation in terms of developing American identity,” said Pinkert.

“Paul Simon: Words and Music” features autobiographical films, videos of select performances, and more than 80 artifacts chronicling Simon’s life, career and creative inspiration. Included is original narration by the artist, recorded specifically for the exhibit and unavailable elsewhere, as well as costumes, film clips, letters and memorabilia associated with his career.

“We wanted to give Paul Simon the opportunity to tell his own story. We interviewed him for hours, and asked him how he got started, his creative process, and how he came up with some of his songs,” said Karen L. Herman, vice president of curatorial affairs for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. 

“His stories provide context to the places where his music intersected with our culture — from Simon and Garfunkel to ‘Saturday Night Live.’ We used that to really define how the exhibit would work, with much of the footage used to guide visitors through his life and career.”

Exhibit artifacts range from guitars — like Simon’s first guitar and his 1967 Guild F-30-NT-Spec (used to write and record most of Simon & Garfunkel’s canon) — to handwritten lyrics, personal summer camp correspondence between Paul and Art, album jackets, rare photos and more.

Additional related programs

In addition, the exhibit is a platform for the museum’s programs that explore the stories of great Jewish singer/songwriters — from Simon and Bob Dylan to Theodore Bikel and Debbie Friedman. 

Through programs and events, the museum is looking at the intersection of folk, folk-rock and the Jewish experience, including political activism in the 1960s; the meeting of African-American and Jewish musical traditions; the incorporation of folk melodies into synagogue music; and the Jewish entrepreneurs who shaped the folk and folk-rock record labels and the Greenwich Village folk scene.

 On Nov. 22 at 2 p.m., for example, Nora Guthrie, daughter of legendary musician Woody Guthrie, will discusses the artistic implications of Woody’s relationship with his Jewish mother-in-law, Yiddish poet Aliza Greenblatt, in “Holy Ground: Woody Guthrie’s Yiddish Connection.”

On Nov. 24 at 6:30 p.m., as part of the JMM’s Folk Film Festival, the documentary Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune will be shown, chronicling Ochs’s topical music that engaged his audiences in the issues of the ‘60s and ‘70s, including civil rights, the anti-war movement and the struggles of workers. (For more events that broaden the scope of the exhibit, visit the museum’s website at www.jewishmuseummd.org.)

The exhibit offers insight into Simon’s creative process, documenting the evolution of lyrics to songs like “The Boxer” (starting with notes made on an in-flight magazine) and the album “Graceland” (scratched out on a yellow pad). It covers all the genres of Simon’s work — folk, rock and world music.

“So much of the soundtrack of our lives was written by a handful of talented people like Paul Simon,” said Pinkert. “Such creative metaphors as ‘sounds of silence,’ and ‘bridge over troubled waters’ echo through the years, evoking emotional memories.”

Visitors can share their memories on a feedback wall at the end of the exhibit, leaving post-it notes on album covers. On the album cover of “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” for example, one visitor wrote, “This song got me through lots of tough times as a teenager. It was like a lifeline to me!” “Best exhibit ever” wrote another visitor on the “Bookends” album cover.

Pinkert agrees. “I think this will indeed be one of our most popular exhibits.”

The Jewish Museum of Maryland is located at 15 Lloyd St. Admission is $10 for adults; $8 for those 65+. It is free for members. For more information, go to http://jewishmuseummd.org/paul-simon.